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New Jersey DOC Settles Sexual Abuse Suit, but More Cases are Pending

by Derek Gilna

The New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) agreed to settle a federal complaint that alleged multiple civil rights violations at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. That same facility, located in Hunterdon County, is also the subject of several lawsuits in state court raising similar allegations, resulting in the arrests and convictions of multiple former guards as well as state senate hearings and a federal investigation.

The June 2018 settlement in the federal suit provided for the payment of $35,000 to Christine Bernat, who had alleged misconduct on the part of facility administrator William Hauck and guards Erick Melgar, Alfred Small, Jeffrey Ellis and Lance Johnson. Bernat accused Melgar of groping, touching and kissing her, and the other defendants of failing to take action to discipline him and protect her. 

Bernat further claimed “that Edna Mahon Administrator William Hauck and other officials knew that Melgar was having sexual contact with female inmates prior to [her] 2009 arrival at the facility but failed to take preventative action.” See: Bernat v. State of NJ Dept. of Corrections, U.S.D.C. (D. NJ), Case No. 3:12-cv-02649-MAS-LHG.

Several state lawsuits against the DOC are also currently pending. Marianne Brown alleged she was subjected to sexual abuse while incarcerated at Edna Mahan, and on July 6, 2018 her lawsuit was granted class-action status. Brown claimed that sexual harassment and assaults at the facility dated back to at least 1997, and that prison staff had tried to cover-up at least ten incidents of employee misconduct. 

As a result of publicity surrounding the lawsuits the Edna Mahan facility underwent a Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) audit, yet despite the rampant abuse it received a perfect score. Meanwhile, guards at the prison were criminally charged and convicted of sexual assault, sexual contact and official misconduct.

In July 2018, former Edna Mahan senior guard Jason Mays was sentenced to 16 years for sexually abusing prisoners. Also arrested on similar charges were guards Brian Ambroise, Ahnwar Dixon, Joel Mercado and Ronald Coleman, Jr. Mercardo, 37, pleaded guilty to two counts of official misconduct in February 2019 and faces three years in prison. In 2017, two other prison employees, Joel Herscap and Thomas Seguine, received three-year prison terms for having sex with female prisoners. [See: PLN, Dec. 2018, p.44].

The New Jersey Senate’s Law and Public Safety Committee has held hearings on conditions at Edna Mahan, chaired by state Senator Linda Greenstein, who said the prison’s problems “go back many, many years.” The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting an investigation into claims of abuse at the facility. 

A 1996 report by Human Rights Watch found that “being a woman prisoner in U.S. state prisons can be a terrifying experience. If you are sexually abused, you cannot escape from your abuser. Grievance or investigatory procedures, where they exist, are often ineffectual, and correctional employees continue to engage in abuse because they believe they will rarely be held accountable, administratively or criminally.” 

Apparently, not much has changed since that report was released over 20 years ago – at least not at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. 

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Sources: mycentraljersey.com, law.com

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